Do you remember the last time the Broncos were considered odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl before the playoffs even started? I do, and it was...let's see...a different century. This would have been late 1998, during John Elway's farewell season, after the team had finally shaken the stigma of four previous SB blowout defeats and managed to shock the national press corps by beating Green Bay -- and was well on its way to doing the same thing to the Atlanta Falcons, earning back-to-back championship rings. But it had been a long, arduous climb to reach that pinnacle, a journey laden with absurd hype and wretched letdowns.
Statistically, of course, the current Broncos stack up well against anything Elway ever had to play with. They're fast, consistent and hungry, led by the Mighty One, the quarterback with the biggest forehead (and biggest brain) in the league. Sure, after a brutal start they settled into a slush schedule -- but unlike the Elway teams, they haven't managed to play down to the level of the competition. Instead, they've crushed opponents as differently abled as Baltimore and Oakland with equal dispatch.
And they are in an enviable position to go all the way, having surged to the number two seed in the AFC playoffs -- with a real shot at number one, if Houston loses on Sunday and the Broncos manage to, uh, squeeze by Kansas City. That could mean home-field advantage throughout and the wonderful prospect of rubbing Tom Brady's face in the turf of Mile High in a few weeks.
But before the fantasizing takes over, it's advisable to consider the past. I'm thinking particularly of the 1996 season, during which the Broncos went 13-3 and seemed absolutely-positively Super Bowl bound. Everything was clicking; Elway finally had the coach he wanted (Mike Shanahan) and a powerhouse running back (Terrell Davis) to provide some offensive balance. The opening playoff game was against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, and all the hometown sports flacks were predicting that Denver would cruise through that one, winning by at least two touchdowns.
Woody Paige -- the same venerable seer who'd confidently predicted Bronco victories against the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins in three previous Super Bowl humblings -- declared that the Broncos would smoke the pathetic "Jagwads" by at least three touchdowns. All of which seemed to inspire Jacksonville to stage one of the greatest upsets in local memory, stiffing the Broncos 30-27 in their own stadium. The sportswriters were so flummoxed that they predicted that it would take years for the Broncos to recover from such a humiliating loss; instead, they won the Super Bowl the following two seasons.
It wasn't the first time that Bronco hopes of postseason glory ended in a thud, and it wouldn't be the last. The Colts or Bengals (or even the beleaguered Chiefs) could be the Jagwads of this season. Those who don't learn from the hype are doomed to repeat it -- a point at the center of this retrospective on the Broncos' checkered career, which appeared in Westword the last time the Super Bowl hype machine hit town. From our archives: "City of Hype: Great moments in Bronco history -- and hysteria."